How Arlington National Cemetery Came to Be

What is now Arlington National Cemetery was once the home of Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary.

Mary Lee dreaded the thought of abandoning Arlington, the 1,100-acre estate she had inherited from her father, George Washington Parke Custis, upon his death in 1857. Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington, had been adopted by George Washington when Custis’ father died in 1781. Beginning in 1802, as the new nation’s capital took form across the river, Custis started building Arlington, his showplace mansion. Probably modeled after the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, the columned house floated among the Virginia hills as if it had been there forever, peering down upon the half-finished capital at its feet. When Custis died, Arlington passed to Mary Lee, his only surviving child, who had grown up, married and raised seven children and buried her parents there. In correspondence, her husband referred to the place as “our dear home,” the spot “where my attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world.” If possible, his wife felt an even stronger attachment to the property.

Mary Lee packed up and left in 1861, just ahead of the Union Army. Even after the federal government began burying soldiers on the property, the Lees fought for the return of their home. Smithsonian Magazine has the rest of the story of how the estate became the hallowed ground it is today, a resting place and a memorial to American military personnel who died in service to their country.

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